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Juan Barroso: Immigrant Narratives

My work is about Mexican labor and the plight, struggle, hope, and heritage of Mexican immigrants. With political administrations that continue to enforce policies that dehumanize and force immigrants into the shadows, recognizing an immigrant’s humanity is vital. As the son of immigrant parents, I hope to pay homage to my people and the dignity of their labor. This exhibition, Immigrant Narratives, focuses on the stories of undocumented immigrants along the US-Mexico border.

No More Caged Children. Slip cast porcelain with hand-painted imagery. Juan Barroso. 2021.

 I see the water jug as a symbol of the dangerous journey across the desert. I grew up hearing stories of family friends that died in the desert before making it to the US. The water jug form was also my response to a video of an ICE officer dumping out water jugs that had been left behind by a humanitarian group. The water bottles had been left behind to prevent deaths from dehydration, and to see this man essentially condemning people to death with a smile on his face showed me what can happen when human beings are separated by an “us” and “them” mentality. 

The water jug form references the journey, and the hand-painted images on them depict some of the consequences undocumented immigrants face when the search for a better life is unsuccessful. The image of a child’s hand behind a chain link fence references the harsh living conditions for undocumented children in detention facilities at the border, including dehydration and more than 4000 allegations of sexual abuse in the last 5 years. This image is painful to paint, but I hope that when people see it, it can spark much needed conversations on human dignity. 

Border Narrative Mugs with iron decals. Juan Barroso. 2021.

I have included a limited series of iron decal mugs with images of the ICE officer that was recorded dumping out water, a caged child, and a monarch butterfly. These images were turned into decals from photographs of two large-scale graphite drawings I drew during a short-term residency at Companion Gallery. Because of its migration between the US and Mexico, I see the monarch butterfly as a symbol for the immigrant. The inclusion of the concertina razor wire reminds me of the photographs I saw of a mother and her child severely cut from the wire in an attempt to cross the border wall. In those images I saw an example of the price people are willing to pay for a chance at the American dream and a chance to provide a decent meal for their families. I made this series in an attempt to have both a more affordable tier of work and more pieces with these images out in the world. If I had hand-painted these images on each mug, the price would be higher than $350 just to get above minimum wage and this show would have taken all year to complete. Using a hand-drawn reference, different colors, and different image placement felt like a great way to still make unique pieces with a significant message. 

Hummingbird Pitcher. Slip cast porcelain with hand-painted imagery. Juan Barroso. 2021

Before my parents became legal residents, I spent my childhood in Mexico waiting for my mother to get her green card. She sewed clothes, repaired clothes, washed clothes, and sold clothes so my sister and I could eat. We would ride around on bicycles to collect small payments because the people of San Miguel Octopan, Gunajuato could not afford to pay full price. The pitcher forms I have in this show are made from molds of detergent bottles. It was a way to honor my mother and everything she did for my family. The happier images on these pitchers have become a way for me to cope with the political work that takes an emotional toll over time. 

For the hand-painted images I use a small watercolor brush and paint my images with Amaco’s black underglaze on functional vessels. I use a pointillism technique because the process is time-consuming and labor intensive. The process, with time invested, becomes an act of devotion. 

After the imagery is painted on bisqueware, I bisque again to set the image and avoid smearing the underglaze. I protect the images with liquid latex and airbrush a clear glaze on the rest of the piece. I make the work permanent and functional by firing to cone 10 in an electric kiln.  – Juan Barroso

Border Narrative Pitchers. Slip cart porcelain with glaze and iron decals. Juan Barroso. 2021
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A Conversation with Ashlyn Pope

How did you get into clay? 

In college is where I first got into clay. I signed up for a Ceramics I class because Sculpture I was full. My first piece fell apart and I fell in love with the challenge of mastering a material that gave push back. It still pushes back and I am still trying to master it. 

Nearly all of your vessels include an addition of sweetgrass elements. Why is this important to you and how has it evolved since you began? 

The sweetgrass elements are included on my works because they are apart of my Gullah Ancestry. I am a descendant of people with a long, rich history of being artisans. One of the arts that they are known for are Sweetgrass baskets. I bring the elements of these baskets into my own vessels to represent the idea of our ancestry and culture being the foundation of what makes us who we are today. Using these elements are also important to me because as a descendant of these amazing people, my family line in particular, lost the history and knowledge of making these baskets on the way to assimilation. As designs and the ways of making these baskets are handed down through families, I have been unable to learn the practice of my people. I still hope to find someone within our culture who is willing to teach me, but for now, I use a permanent material to reclaim my culture so that it can never be taken or lost to me again. 

The sweetgrass inspired forms I am make have evolved quite a bit. Originally, they were forms strictly focused on recalling the idea of baskets. Now, my pieces use elements of sweetgrass basket forms and work harder to incorporate content that extends beyond Gullah culture and into addressing broader experiences of the African American community. 

Observing the last few series of work that you have made, it seems that you approach imagery through many different techniques i.e. carving, painting, mishima and slip trailing. Your patterns, lines and imagery begin to feel like quilting. Could you speak to the significance of your imagery and references to quilting?

I use imagery mostly of cotton but sometimes there are images of rice plants, indigo plants, tobacco plants and even sometimes magnolias. These are all crops important to the foundation of American history and the reason for slavery. I use images of cotton, rice and indigo in particular because the Gullah people were brought to the islands off of the coast of the Southeastern United States and to the low country of South Carolina in order to harvest these particular items. I use magnolia’s because they are my favorite flower and a way for me to pay homage to Billy Holiday and her song Strange Fruit. The use of plants as decorations on ceramics is my acknowledgement of ceramic history. However, it is also simply because plant imagery on pots is beautiful and the audience gets to see something beautiful. Though, if the audience chooses to pay more attention, they will understand the full weight of the history behind those flowering buds and what it means for those white lines (usually slip trailed in white) to be drawn across Black bodies. 

My work does reference quilting as it was a tradition I did receive from my elders. My grandmother showed me how to quilt and I proceeded to take the visual aesthetics with me along the ceramics road that I chose to travel. Quilting is also important as quilts and quilt making is a large American tradition. Within the Black community they became ways to tell stories that could be passed down from generation to generation. I think of my ceramics as a way to tell stories. I also have a degree in Fashion design, so fabric and pattern really mean quite a bit in my practice. I no longer wish to make clothing but instead call to my history with fabric for my ceramics. 

In your most recent series of cups, the majority hold evidence of having been bound and constricted. The same forms also offer an abundance of volume. Could you talk about your treatment of the vessel as a figure/body and what it feels like to make these pots?

Clay, to me, even in its most unrefined form represents humanity. I grew up in church and though I am not much of a practitioner now, I remember being told that God shaped man from clay. To me, my vessels have no other choice but to be the human body. So, when I am discussing the Black experience in America as being bound and restricted, I physically have to bind and restrict my forms. 

I would like to say my actions in physically binding and then unbinding is therapeutic but if I allow myself to think beyond the physical actions needed to do this, then it becomes an emotional burden. Seeing my brown clay bound by my hands can be emotionally taxing. I feel some relief when I remove its binds but I find sorrow in the scars I left behind. The only solace I have in the entire process, is seeing that the pieces are still standing tall despite having been forced to fit into constraints. We as Black bodies manage to survive within those constraints.  

If you could make a mix tape to reflect the vibe of your studio practice, what would be the first 10 songs?

Strange Fruit- Billy Holiday 

A Change Is Gonna Come- Sam Cooke

They Don’t Care About Us- Michael Jackson 

The Lord is Coming- H.E.R ft YBN Cordae

What’s Goin On- Marvin Gaye 

Django Jane- Janelle Monae 

Freedom – Beyonce ft Kendrick Lamar 

Human- Rag’n’Bone Man

Tightrope- Janelle Monae

Let it Be- The Beatles 

Check out Ashlyn Pope’s bio, artist statement and available works HERE.

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A Conversation with Rebecca Zweibel

CG: How were you introduced to clay and what about it drew you in?

RZ: I was first introduced to clay via a community college course that I took after my two children were in school. As so many others have said before, it was initially the feel of the clay that drew me in and then the realization that clay could be almost anything; not only as form, but as a blank slate upon which  limitless marks can be made.

CG: Could you talk about your decision making while applying color and developing compositions?

RZ: Questions about my decision making of design and composition are difficult ones for me. Maybe I’m easily bored, but I am constantly in search of ideas for new forms and color combinations. I have a large number of jars of colored terra sigillata combined with slip made up in my studio, which I frequently add to or subtract from, although I have a few shades which I always find useful. The availability of a lot of colors is important to me and seems to free something up and open my mind. I open the jars and think over what appeals at the moment and then often add a discordant note or two so things don’t get too sweet. Different days equal different colors and configurations, and the reason for the choice is obscure. Thinking too much causes me to feel stiff and awkward in my strokes and the shapes I make not pleasing to me. I do some underpainting and texture before adding larger, more sharply defined blocks and lines of color. Additional smaller shapes and sgraffito marks are applied at the end. Texture and layering are crucial design elements for my work, adding depth and underlying intensity.

CG: After studying these vessels I’m intrigued by your use of ‘almost images’. I see a ladder… or a DNA strand. I see a submarine… or a bath toy, a mitten, a queen’s crown, a motorcylce, a cactus…  almost. Describe where your thoughts are while creating imagery. 

RZ: Your mention of ‘almost images’ is interesting to me. People often talk to me about what they see in my imagery. It’s amazing how many various things they see—one man was sure I had made a map of Paris.  When I’m doing the sgraffito part of the surface decoration I try to detach myself from my thoughts as much as I can and just let my hand go where it will. I consciously tell myself to not think and force myself not to stop even if I’m not sure what I want to do next. It doesn’t work perfectly, but its the only way I’ve found to free up my brain/hand connection. My belief is that I’m revealing experiences and yearnings derived from a not-ideal childhood. It feels right to me when my lines encircle or attach to each other and I’m not sure why. 


CG: I can imagine these vessels unfolded and the compositions existing successfully on a canvas. Why is the vessel important to you? 

RZ:  I’m always searching new and ancient artworks for fresh ideas on vessels.  A sense of enclosure and containment are what is appealing to me. Working the surface in 3 dimensions presents a host of problems, not least of which is handling a leather hard pot deftly enough to be able to cover the inside and bottom without damage to the vessel. Developing a cohesive composition around all sides of a pot can be daunting, but I try to combat this by not ending my surface decorations at the edges or ends or bottoms of the pot, so that one can pick the vessel up and turn it any way and still understand the design elements. I’ve recently been considering a detour into experimenting with my designs on a 2D canvas, but my feeling is that I will always continue my exploration of the 3D surface.


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A Conversation with Katie Fee

CG: Hi Katie, Let’s begin with how you were introduced to clay. What was your first experience with ceramics? What path did you follow from there to here? 

KF:  I started on the wheel in a high school ceramics course and was hooked.  It’s been a little over ten years since then, and the past 2-3 years as my career.  I went to the College of William & Mary with vague dreams of becoming an engineer or scientist. In school, the courses that held my interest and brought me joy were sculpture and design, so I gave my full attention to art. W&M is a public research university, so I was able to dig deep into my interests.  I pursued independent research and fellowships in ceramics, and got full support for a yearlong thesis fellowship. That programming let me wade knee deep in studio practice and professional development very early on.  I graduated with a B.A. in Art and a Minor in Geology.

Since then, I’ve been moving around the country for opportunities to become a better artist and build a professional practice. I earned a graduate certificate from U.Mass Dartmouth, and then worked at Peters Valley Craft School, and after that Mudflat Art Studios.

Most recently, I moved to Saint Pete in August 2019 to be an Artist-In-Residence at Morean Center for Clay.  Florida has been a trip so far, and my work is shifting in its foundations as I adjust to the sub-tropical environment and sunshine state culture.

CG: Your forms, handles and embellishments are reminiscent of rock faces, tectonic plates, even graffiti. What experiences or ideas have shaped your personal aesthetic?

KF: It’s a combination of interest in outdoors, geology, and reading too much sci-fi. American Romanticism and John Muir  are key parts to my personal ideology, and they inform my taste.  I’m stuck on the notion that intense geologic landscape can be inviting and nurturing.  One of the biggest ideas behind these forms is the conviction that the sensation I get from an experience outdoors can exist in a functional pot.  Monumental, intimate, and vulnerable- all at once.

When I studied geology in college, I loved learning to read moments of change in rock formations, and was fascinated deciphering the chain of processes that lead to an individual formation.  My taste in pottery is similar, in that I’m a sucker for really intriguing form.  In my own pots, that means preserving an especially energetic wire cut as a contour.  I like to create a composition of arches, ridges, planes, and marks that tell a story about process.

The torn handles and embellishments are as much a nod to botanical form as they are to geologic landscape.  I’ve been working on those since moving to Florida, and I think it’s because tropical plant life grew into my aesthetic.  I’m surrounded by rich bromeliads, ferns, and giant luscious leaves everywhere I go.  The main types of deciduous trees in my life are oak and crepe myrtle, which have gnarled, wiggling branches that are visually full of tension.

CG: You are currently firing wood and soda kilns with a variety of glazes and flashing slips. What effects are you chasing from these kilns?

KF: Partly it’s because I’m smitten with romance for the process of atmospheric firing.  As an undergrad I loved aiming and affecting the work with a soda spray wand.  When I got into wood firing through UMass and Chris Gustin, I loved practicing control over the atmosphere and watching wood ash build up on the surface of the pots.

Now I pursue atmospheric firing because I’m infatuated with variation and vibrancy of glazed surface as it’s enhanced with soda spray and wood ash.  I think about glaze over my pots like river rapids rushing over a rock bed.  There’s areas where the glaze runs and stretches thin, juxtaposed with areas where the form is entirely engulfed.  I think that range is visually interesting.

I operate both wood and soda because they reap different yet equally compelling results.  In my heavy reduction soda firings, the surface contrast is strongest; Ridgelines become sharp contrast points, and panels around the form range from over-saturated soda juice to quiet, pristine glaze.

Something I’ve really loved in recent wood firings is the subtle modulation of one glaze around each form.  Glaze recedes from ridgelines more gently, and the reaction between ash and glaze gives a much wider range of tones and effects than sharp, polarizing soda effects.

See the Show.

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Free AMACO Equipment & Materials Workshop

Amaco/Brent, Companion Gallery, & East Mitchell Clay will be offering a free equipment & materials workshop July 13th & 14th. The workshop is free and open to educators & students.

Sharon Gardner, Quality Technician & Educational Outreach at Amaco/Brent, will lead participants through the maintenance of any model Brent wheel or  Excel kiln. We will have several models of Brent wheels on site, all in varying states of disrepair. Sharon will lead the group in repairing the wheels/ belts/ brushes/ foot pedals, etc.  Gardener will also lead the group through the process of changing kiln elements, checking relays, replacing thermocouples, kiln-sitters etc. Our hope is that participants will be able to employ the skills they learn in their own schools or studios.

In the afternoon sessions, visiting artists will demonstrate a variety of handbuilding, throwing, and underglaze techniques. Demonstrating artists include, Stephen Creech, Ashley Bevington, Mike Cinelli, Sharon Gardner & Eric Botbyl.

The workshop will take place on Saturday & Sunday, July 13th & 14th from 10am to 6pm both days.

Registration is limited. To register, email Eric at botbylpottery@gmail.com. We look forward to working with you!

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A Conversation with Renee LoPresti

CG: Your work has always been rich with imagery. This series is a little different in that some pots are void of imagery… more design and pattern oriented. Other works are loaded with imagery. Could you speak to winnowing and exaggerating imagery on your pots?

RL: For as long as I can remember, I have loved colorful patterns and graphic imagery. I spent my adolescence drawing, painting, cross-stitching and crocheting.  Specific imagery became prevalent on my pots a few years ago. I was spending a lot of time creating hand cut stencils of interlocking patterns and trying to figure out how they could wrap around a thrown pot [instead of strictly on rolled slab work]. Over time and through lots of trial and error, I realized that instead of having one all-over repeating pattern I could use multiple layers, colors and patterns to wrap continuously around a thrown pot.

Within these layered patterns, I started using images of llamas ‘living’ within empty spaces of the surface composition. Stories quickly began to develop, and the llamas were not only interacting with their surroundings but also with one another on each pot. I slowly built a visual library of images that were meaningful to me, and the narratives became increasingly more complex.

When I start decorating a pot, I like to think of different scenarios in which my images can be arranged and ask myself “what are some of the specific stories or messages here?”. I always find personal connection and meaning in these stories, while allowing space for others to find their own interpretations.

My pottery has become a sum of many parts; compositional design, multiple colors, matte surfaces next to glossy surfaces, luster, repeating patterns and imagery. Removing one of the most recognized elements of my pots [imagery], allowed me to shift focus onto the other components of my designs and how they relate to the form. New patterns and design elements have emerged, such as repeating x’s and arching gold lines. Removing imagery has brought the form back into the forefront, with surface decoration playing a ‘supportive role’.

CG: Underneath all of this wonderful surface work there are strong forms. Clearly there are decisions being made about what to make and what not to. Why are these particular forms intriguing to you? What keeps you returning to them?

RL: I definitely fall into the old adage that ‘form follows function’.  Function not only being the use for which a specific pot is intended, but also how it is used in my life and what functions I want  to improve upon. As a ceramics collector, I am always reaching for handmade coffee mugs and tumblers to fill with coffee or a cold beverage as I run out the door on the way to my studio each morning. A long, bumpy, gravel driveway means carefully holding a mug in one hand while steering with the other. I quickly realized I should consider my own work, and started making wide bottom mugs (dashboard friendly with a low center of gravity) and cup holder compatible tumblers.

During and after college, I  spent a handful of years working in the  restaurant industry. I quickly formed opinions of the mass produced ceramic service ware. Plates that were too heavy and painful to carry when full of food, mugs that were too thin and burned your  fingers when filled with piping hot beverages. I noticed which shapes were easy to walk with and contained liquids well (and those that didn’t).

Working in restaurants inevitably made me have a more discerning palate, and I became very interested in cooking complex meals at home. Olive oil is a staple item kept in a cruet close to the stove top alongside pink himalayan sea salt in a small canister where they can be quickly poured or pinched.  I love lunch plates because they naturally create the perfect portion size. I make bowls that are wide enough to eat a variety of foods from, with a turned foot that is wide and deep enough to grasp with your palm for those informal nights eating on the couch. Function is always a consideration for me, and I while my own needs and experiences shape my decisions  on what forms to make, I am always keeping in mind what the needs of others are and trying to find a happy balance.

CG: In some of your recent social media posts you have spoken about the importance of self reflection. How did the cat come to represent this idea and what does it mean to you?

RL: The cat became a recurring character in the stories once I had established a majority of my imagery was of or related to the domestic space. Before introducing the cats, the imagery consisted of inanimate objects such as chairs, ladders, mirrors, and paper airplanes playing out different scenarios. First I introduced a single cat witnessing the scene, solely as an observer. I relate it to the saying of “if a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?”. The cat as a living creature observing its surroundings validates and actualizes the events.

This spring, I had the joy of watching four kittens grow and investigate everything in their reach inside the house. They were a

wonderful combination of contrasting characteristics: inquisitive, bold, meek, sneaky, and devious. They conquered every armchair, climbed to the tops of curtains, and hid in the most obscure places. Imagery of cats on top of chairs, pawing at fallen paper airplanes and looking at themselves in the mirror was not only a direct representation of my surroundings but also tells a more complex narrative that metaphorically relates to human experiences.

I intend for the cats looking at themselves in the mirror to remind us of the importance of self reflection. An internal process vital to the human condition, profound and impactful in order for personal growth to occur. With our ever increasingly busy lives, it is easy to forget the importance of stepping back and taking the time to self assess.

CG: Could you offer any insights into the other imagery you are using, e.g., paper airplanes, chairs, mirrors, and plants?

RL: The chairs serve as a way to indirectly reference the human figure; comprised of  arms, legs, a back and seat. Whereas the paper airplanes are more ambiguous; flying upward, crashing downward, piled on top of one another, or locked inside a bird cage. Dashed lines mark where they have been or where they are heading. They often conjure feelings of nostalgia at first glance, but I see them in a myriad of ways: representing aspirations,  failures, signifiers of freedom, messages sent, received or missed.

Personal growth and communication are themes that are represented not only by mirrors and paper airplanes but also by potted plants and outdoor plants. A potted plant grows well, but eventually becomes stifled and self destructive, whereas a plant growing outside has the ability to dig its roots  deeper to access more water and nutrients. Branching upward, even the outdoor plants are limited in their growth. Often, there will be an airplane soaring above the plants, unlimited in the heights that it can reach even though it is fragile and rootless. This is just a small sample of the metaphors I intend to portray with imagery, and every piece is a unique exploration of these narratives.

To view pots from Renee’s show click HERE.

 

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Chris Gray: FLAMEWARE

A word from Chris…
My name is Chris Gray, and thank you for your interest in my work. This body of  work is the culmination of years of making functional pottery out of stoneware and porcelain, and even more years of cooking. I love both, and loved that they worked together… but eventually that wasn’t enough. That’s when it occurred to me that flameware clay could be the answer to my problem. So I researched a good bit, made some clay, and started testing. And testing. And testing. Luckily, many have come before me that have done the majority of that research and I could focus on using it, and testing the limits.
Flameware is a high fired, heat and fire proof body that can withstand vast temperature changes. It has a wonderful ability to handle thermal shock. So after testing many pieces myself, and giving some to trusted friends who cook, I started to get busy designing and making cooking and heating pots. Flameware is very similar to cast iron in its heat retention, and non-stick properties. In fact, I season mine just like I do my cast iron pans. I find the pans I make to be even more non-stick than many cast iron pans after being used many times. It can go from the refrigerator to the stove top. I tend to heat the pan up with the stove top burner just to be safe and thorough. I also use these very often over a wood or charcoal fire with no problems. You should never use flameware if it has been cracked in some way. And this is ceramic, so dropping it will shatter it. On my larger frying pans I make handles like a cooking pan would have. I do not use the handle for flipping food, but for moving and positioning the pan over the fire.
    I have had no issues with washing these in warm soapy water, and losing the non-stick properties. Many use salt and warm water to scrub it clean. That works well too.
    I hope you enjoy using these as much as I do, and if treated well, these will last a very long time.
    Thank you and keep cooking.
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Todd’s Train

CG: Aye mate! How did you get in to woodfiring and what was it about it that hooked you?
TP: There is no simple answer, but my first exposure to woodfiring was with Dick Lehman when I was first learning how to make pots.  The community aspect to firing the kiln was certainly a great experience.  We spend a great deal of time alone as studio potters and I loved the opportunity to come together as a team. I was also privileged to be a part of the final few firings of Dick’s kiln, amazing fifteen day firings with incredible results.  I couldn’t help myself after that, I was hooked 🙂
CG: For those that aren’t familiar, describe the kiln’s history and some of the highlights along the way.
TP: This is tough for me, we just finished removing it from the shed a few days ago and it was a painful experience. The kiln went up in August of 2015, Ted Neal came up from Ball State and did his thing.  Although I had just over fifteen years of woodfiring under my belt, I had very little kiln building experience.  It was a privilege to learn from him and have such a wonderful kiln resting right behind my studio.
Highlights were certainly the first firing with Anna and Gunner (our dog), the Handle with Care workshop firing with Eric Botbyl and Matt Schiemann, and the last firing a few weeks ago with the Goshen clay community.
At this moment, some of the most memorable moments are tough to think about.  Hand and paw prints in the concrete, cleaning and carrying thousands of bricks with my parents, sanding the fingerprints off the ifbs to make sure the kiln sparkled, unloading those super orange pots from the first firing.  All great memories and I am grateful to carry them into the future.
CG: These pots are bloody gorgeous mate. I’d love to hear your thoughts about the final firing and what’s next for the ol’ train.
TP: The final firing was legend!  It was a challenging experience as I was on the brink of tears throughout parts of the firing, but it was also a lot of fun.  I am happy I was able to fire it one more time and very pleased with the results.  It was as if we went back to the first few firings, lots of orange flashing and great carbon trapping.  I don’t know exactly what I would have said was a perfect firing, but we couldn’t have been far off.
I wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to do with the kiln when I arrived (back in the US) in March, but I think we have found the best possible solution.  I donated the kiln to the Goshen Youth Arts Center and am happy to know the kiln will be rebuilt and firing again soon.  I can’t wait to visit Goshen and fire the kiln again in the near future!
Cheers mate 🙂
pletch
Check out pots from the final firing of Todd’s train HERE.
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PROSPECTORS: A Conversation with Alex Thullen & Matt Fiske

CG: What was your first experience with clay, and what was it that “grabbed” you?

Thullen: I grew up in a house where handmade functional and decorative objects were ubiquitous.  Reed Baskets, Ceramic Figurines, Cross-Stitch, Ukrainian Easter eggs, and a plethora of other meticulous, detailed objects were my everyday surroundings. The small electric kiln in our basement was the first introduction to clay, long before I even knew what it was used for. I was exposed to these objects from a very young age, but it wasn’t until my first experience with clay in Junior high school that I really understood the potential of the material. Or, the possibilities that it would open up for me to fill my need to make things with my hands, and in some way, shape my own surroundings.

Alex Thullen at work in his studio

CG: You are both prospecting glaze materials, yet very differently from one another. What is your approach to prospecting, and how has it changed since you began?

Thullen: My interest in working with locally sourced materials began years ago when I began working with atmospheric firings, and started looking into more traditional, historic methods of creating glazes. After spending so much time testing and experimenting with traditional reduction glazes, I was ready to move beyond the conventional “crayon box” of the materials that I had at my disposal from ceramic suppliers, and to see what could be achieved with materials sourced from my own surroundings. This began with more conventional choices akin to the material that were used by early potters to create their glazes, such as wood ash, locally dug clay, and numerous materials derived from traditional geological sources, and the landscape around us. I was interested, as I began to develop my own personal aesthetic, in carrying this idea through to my glaze materials and palette as well.

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Carved bowl in progress by Alex Thullen.

 

More recently, I have begun what I refer to as “Urban Prospecting”. In thinking about the process of sourcing my materials and how this related to the work that I was making, I began to consider the source of my aesthetic. I am heavily influenced by, and interested in the application of ceramics to architecture. The patterns and texture used to decorate my pots began by looking at pattern and geometry in architectural embellishment and decoration, including brick, tile, and other uses of ceramics in constructing our environment.

Large carved platter in progress.

I started to realize that I could be using these materials themselves physically, and not just as inspiration, by processing these materials to create my glazes themselves. Additionally, in thinking about the origins of my materials, we all derive sourced material from our surroundings. Living and working in an Urban (and suburban) environment, I don’t have landscape or geology readily at my disposal. My landscape is the urban environment that I work in, and drive through every day. This is where I have begun to draw from to create my glaze palette. The materials that I use are essentially the detritus from Architectural and Industrial sources in my surroundings. Old building bricks, broken glass, industrial slag, and chunks of concrete contain the necessary chemical makeup to make glazes just as beautiful as any that can be derived from the rocks and minerals that shape the natural world around us.

 

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Soda fired vase with Brick Powder Slip by Alex Thullen

 

Specific Glazes I Use:

Clay Bodies: I use a very simple porcelain body, mainly Kaolin, Feldspar and Silica and a few small additions for workability. This is the basic clay that I use to make the majority of my pots. Three of the pieces in the exhibition are made with an iron-rich version of this clay body that contains Iron-rich slag which I found on a beach in Northern Michigan last summer. The clay body has such a high thermal expansion and contraction rate as a result of the iron that only my shino glazes can be used on this clay without causing significant glaze fit problems. The resulting clay body has a beautiful deep brown color, and a metallic sheen from the reduction firing.

 

Beach Glass Celadon: This glaze starts as a traditional celadon, but incorporates beach glass as a pigment, rather than the traditional Iron oxide compounds. Being related closely to glaze, glass uses virtually identical pigments to create color. By taking a combination of blue, green and brown glass washed up on the shores of the Detroit river, I can grind these materials into a fine powder, and essentially create a “stain” of my own. Because this material contains cobalt and chrome from these glasses, the colors are more intense, and a bit more reliable and true than a traditional celadon glaze.

 

Angle Iron Celadon: This is a very traditional celadon glaze. In this case, I have taken sheets of rust from the Angle Iron supports of an old salt Kiln that was torn down and re-built during my first year at Pewabic Pottery. This was my first kiln-building project, and is full of nostalgia for me because of the friendships that we made while working on it. The rust sheets were ground and ball-milled to create a very fine iron oxide that is used to color this glaze.

 

Molasses: This glaze started as an amber-colored, high-iron ash glaze. I’ve incorporated concrete dust into it as a source of calcium. Processing the concrete so that it is usable requires calcining the material to break down the chemical bonds that hold it together, and then carefully screening out the sand and gravel that is added to the concrete during the original mixing process. It is quite a caustic material, so care needs to be used when handling and spraying the glaze, much like an ash glaze.  I have carefully adjusted it so that it is fluid enough to highlight the carved decorations on my pieces, but is still stable enough to keep it from running badly.

 

Belle Isle Black: This is one of my favorite glazes. It’s a high-magnesium matte black glaze that is based mainly on a red local clay that was sourced from Belle Isle, a state park in middle of the Detroit river. The majority of my glaze materials wash up on the shores of the island.

 

 

Brick Powder Slip: This is a simple flashing slip that I use for soda firings, made by blending ground brick powder with Kaolin, and small amount of feldspar. The brick powder deflocculates the slip, making it ideal for bisque application without cracking, and the Iron in the original brick clay gives the slip a beautiful color when flashed by the wood ash and soda in atmospheric firings. Coming from a city with a northern climate, the small chunks of brick that wash up out of the river have been exposed to possibly over 100 years of freeze-thaw, making them extremely porous, and easy to break down into a very fine powder.

 

Slate Shino: This simple shino glaze contains powdered slate from the roof of Detroit’s old University Club, now demolished. This historic gem was an incredibly beautiful building full of intricate architectural details. Tragically, it fell victim to urban decay, corruption and looting, and had to be torn down several years ago. I was lucky enough to salvage some of the old roof tiles from the grounds just before it was demolished, and used a ball mill to grind them down to a fine powder. The iron in the slate gives the shino it’s rich red-orange color over the porcelain clay that I use.

 

Luster Shino: This glaze is a layering of a high-alkali Shino over a dark iron-rich slip containing ground brick powder. The high iron concentration combined with the carbon trapping caused by the high soda content of the glaze causes the intense metallic luster in the fired glaze surface. This is one of my favorite, but most unreliable and variable glazes.

 

Continue reading PROSPECTORS: A Conversation with Alex Thullen & Matt Fiske

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A Conversation with Eric Heerspink

EB: Who introduced you to clay- and what were your early pots like?

Heerspink: Growing up I was privileged to attend a school were the arts were regularly taught. Due to this, I was introduced to clay at a fairly early age. However, it wasn’t until my junior year of undergrad that I was completely captivated by this versatile medium. In 2005 I enrolled in my first college level ceramics class. Through the instruction of Anna Greidanus, I quickly realized that I had found my passion. My early pots were thickly thrown, poorly trimmed, lopsided versions of what loosely resembled mugs. As my skills developed so did the work. Looking back at my earlier work I have noticed common elements that persistently continue to show up. These early pots were electric fired porcelain with overlapping thicknesses of different colored brushed lines, often in a repeating pattern. The repetition of shapes and the thin controlled line continue to interest me and play an important role in my current work.

EB: Our mutual friend, Mark Arnold, introduced me to your work a couple of years ago. He described it like- What if there was handmade pottery in Star Wars? I found the question and concept absolutely fascinating. So what’s with the obsession? Obviously you’re not alone, but what was it that captivated you?

Heerspink: I was 12 the first time I saw Star Wars: A New Hope. With the first notes of the opening title and the iconic scrolling text I was interested, as soon as those first ships flew overhead, firing green and red laser bolts I was hopelessly hooked. As I have aged the reasons I like these films have perhaps not changed, but deepened. As a 12-year- old boy, I was fascinated by the technology of space ships and light sabers and of course the action of the films. (I mean what 12-year- old wouldn’t want a light saber.) Now, as a 33-year- old “man”, there is an element of nostalgia that is comforting. These movies have become really good friends; friends you know everything about and can finish their sentences. But more than that, I find myself increasingly interested in the design elements of the film; set, costume, and props. This interest in the design (more than the characters or story) is what influences my work.

EB: When did your love of Star Wars and ceramics finally merge?

Heerspink: It was Joe Page, my graduate instructor, who first asked me why I was not letting my work be influenced by such an obvious obsession. In graduate school I would often be found working in the studio with the original Star Wars trilogy playing on my computer. The simple answer to Joe’s question was that I didn’t think it would be appropriate for the work to be influenced by something so pop culture and “nerdy”. Through the prodding and guidance of Joe, my work took a complete 180 degree turn during my last semester. Instead of making the functional work I had been doing my entire time in grad school, I started to explore sculptures that were influence by the mechanical workings of the space ships in Star Wars. Following graduation, while I still have an interest in sculpture, my work turned back to functional ceramics, but the influence of these films has remained.

EB: You could have approached this body of work from so many angles- imagery, character’s faces, etc. It seems like you’ve put yourself into the shoes of the intergalactic potter. How did you arrive at this point of view?

Heerspink: Like most artists, my work has evolved over time. Graduate school was a period of intense change that often seemed disjointed at the time. Looking back at the work, I can now see more clearly connections between various bodies. Entering college, I had intended to become an engineer. I was interested in engineering because of my fascination with machinery and drawing. In particular it was the crisp precise lines of mechanical drawing that drew me in. I lasted one semester before I realized that I wasn’t meant to be an engineer. However, I took that interest in line with me. It emerged in my early pots as a decorative element both brushed and carved. Later in graduate school, this fascination manifested itself as mechanical drawings that were screen printed onto the forms. Crisp precise lines continue to play a prominent role in my current work. When I began my investigations into this series I knew I wanted to avoid imagery that overtly screamed Star Wars. This was ultimately due to the fact that the work is about more than just those films. I am just as interested in how the formal elements of shape, color and line interact. Repetition and pattern as well as symmetry and asymmetry are explored within the work. The pots are just as much about these formal concerns as they are about Star Wars. I do enjoy the subtle references within the work to the films. One of my favorite moments to witness is when someone is looking at my work, turning the piece over in their hands, then turns to the person they are with and says, “I think this is from Star Wars”.

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Check out Heerspink’s solo show HERE.

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